The Lensman Series Critical Essays

E. E. Smith


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

When the magazine serials that became the Lensman series were first published, Triplanetary was unconnected with the other stories. It was not until the conclusion of the fourth and last part of the main series that its readers found out—along with the Kinnisons— that their adventures all had been a part of some greater scheme. The book version of Triplanetary begins by describing that greater scheme in some detail and elaborating its connections with the whole of human history and prehistory. E. E. Smith then added a new linking volume to connect the history of Triplanetary to that of Galactic Patrol. As a result, the reader who first encounters the series in book form has a view of its contents and development very different from that of its original readers. Purchasers of the various uniform editions of the series would also have acquired a seventh and decidedly anticlimactic volume called The Vortex Blaster (1960; also titled Masters of the Vortex, 1968), which elaborates three inferior stories, which happen to be set in the same universe, first published in more obscure pulp magazines.

That Smith saw fit to undertake this perspective-wrenching revision is in some ways regrettable. The manner in which the pulp serials worked through an ever-escalating series of contexts represented a gradual but inexorable expansion of consciousness from the narrow horizons of the inner solar system to the furthest limits then imaginable. It was this steady but spectacular expansion of perspective that gave the serials their central role within the developing mythos of pulp science fiction and established them as the key exemplars of classic space opera.

The main sequence of the Lensman series, in spite of its grandiose claims of constituting “The History of Civilization,” is a straightforward allegory of maturation. The young Kimball Kinnison graduates from school, is gifted with the responsibilities and prerogatives of a new adult, gets a girlfriend and falls in love, learns to refine his powers and privileges, brings up his children while his own kindly “parents” helpfully look on, and eventually passes the torch of...

(The entire section is 900 words.)